Scientific Controversies No.10: Genetic Manipulation

By Andrew Andrews

Seated before a giant projection of E. Coli, Janna Levin interviews Pulitzer Prize winning biologist Siddhartha Mukherjee and Harvard University geneticist George Church about Genetic Manipulation during Scientific Controversies at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Pioneer Works is perhaps our favorite multidisciplinary venue anywhere. Always drawing a cool crowd that’s both intelligent and chic, the venue calls itself “a center for research and experimentation in contemporary culture,” but we translate that to a beautiful art gallery and studio that really shines when it doubles as an event space. Their free (donations appreciated) Second Sundays series is a great way to spend the day on a summer weekend (and not bad in the winter, for that matter!), but their occasional Scientific Controversies presentations are a great reason to head to Red Hook for a weekday evening,

Along with shows like SASS in Williamsburg and Secret Science Club in Gowanus, Scientific Controversies is one of those Brooklyn shows where you can learn a little something while drinking beer or wine (this time, paired with gelato or hot soup). What makes this different from the others is its format: Barnard College Director of Sciences Janna Levin interviews a panel of experts on a controversial scientific topic, such as the Higgs Boson particle or Dark Matter. But unlike a professional symposium or university lecture, this isn’t the kind of discussion that would go over the head of a layperson or put a non-scientist to sleep. Sure, there are plenty of people in the audience who are deeply interested in whatever topic is up for discussion, but much of the crowd is just looking for something more intelligent to do on a week night than veg out in front of the idiot box.

Tonight’s theme, Scientific Controversies No. 10: Genetic Manipulation, took us on a one-hour journey from the history to the present and future of this area of science, from evolutionary biology and the millennia-old practice of selective breeding, to cloning, modern gene therapies and the prospect of designer babies. Answering Levin’s questions, Harvard University geneticist George Church and Pulitzer Prize winning biologist Siddhartha Mukherjee had a lot to say about DNA manipulation and the potential for CRISPR to cure diseases that have historically caused a tremendous amount of pain and suffering—and to do so for what ultimately would be a tiny fraction of the cost of traditional medical treatments. But in addition to painting a picture of a brighter future, these experts also cautioned that the technology can just as easily be used for purely cosmetic and even political purposes, and explained how the scientific community and government agencies have been working to define acceptable (and therefore also unacceptable) applications, including those involving humans.

Before and after the discussion, Dr. Ellen Jorgensen (President of the Board at Genspace in Fort Greene) hosted a special “hands-on interactive molecular biology station” nestled among Pioneer Work’s current E.S.P. TV WORK exhibit, which was also open for perusal. And guests were invited to stick around after the presentation for a “pop-up Genetics Bar,” with expert geneticists available to discuss matters further to a soundtrack provided by DJ Black Helmet.

Like we said before: intelligent and chic! If you’ve been looking for that kind of crowd, Pioneer Works is the place for you, and they have plenty of upcoming programs for you to find out for yourself what an awesome mix that can be—including the previously-mentioned Second Sundays, this weekend starting at 4:00pm!


Andrew Andrews attended Scientific Controversies No.10: Genetic Manipulation at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn on Thursday, March 9, 2017 @ 8:00pm to write this review.